At some point, almost every agility handler realises that timing of cues is a vital component of successful handing, no matter which system you follow.
In October 2001, I produced an article for Clean Run magazine with the same title as this blog. It was in many ways, a response to the standard advice of the time to call a dog for a turn whilst he was in the air. The original was shot with my very first digital camera, using the video function and frames were then downloaded for the pictures that were used. By 2007 I’d had many requests to repeat the article and so armed with my (then) nice new digital camera, I turned to two good friends with fabulous dogs to provide the subject matter for the shots. I’d therefore like to begin by thanking Jen Pinder and Theresa Rector for their time and patience during breaks at Clicker Camps, whilst I got to grips with a new camera and for allowing me the opportunity to focus on two wonderful dogs. Jen’s Soda was a very young lad at the time, with a big powerful stride. Teresa’s Finn was another powerful dog, more experienced and showing the typical Kelpie style over the jump.
My aim was to demonstrate not how these skilled handlers handle their dogs around a turn, but rather to show what the dogs will do on their own when they have information about where they are going next. A target was placed out beyond the jumps to tell the dogs where they were going and all other equipment was cleared away. We ran them through each sequence several times so that the dogs were certain; the pictures, therefore, show the dogs in action when they have all the information available to them and know exactly where they are going next. In effect, you see both dogs when they are able to make their own decisions.
In the years since the first article – and the second which is now 10 years old (!) – the sport has progressed at an exponential rate and we have far more information available to us with many seminars and articles on the subject of turns and timing. Sill. a visual reminder is always useful and to some, is more useful than verbal information. Even today there are many people who fail to appreciate how much work their dog does when he prepares for a turn.
When we look at turns in agility, there are two very separate issues to examine. The first is physical; does my dog know how to wrap around a jump? Does he know that jumping involves not touching the pole? Have I taught him the jumping skills involved? That comes down to training.The next part is communication. When does your dog need to know that he is going to turn and how do you give him that information? There are many ways to impart that information, what we’re going to examine are the physical demands involved in turning over a jump and contrast them with the action of jumping a straight line. Although the dogs shown here are big, with plenty of power in their action, be sure to remember that every dog needs timely information. if your dog is smaller, the time frame will simply be shorter.
The first sequence of each dog shows the dog driving a straight line to the tunnel. Although you cant see the handlers, they are at the end, by the tunnel, with toys out for the dogs to focus on. This sequence of Finn shows this remarkable dog demonstrating the typical Kelpie style of jumping. He skims the bar with his rear legs at full extension, leaving very little room for error.
Note the take off spots! For each dog, as he reaches for his takeoff, it is too late to tell him about a turn. At that moment in time, the dogs are committed to at least the first stride that they take as they land from the jump. By the time the dogs have heard and processed the information given at that point, they will be in the air and unable to effect a turn.
Now compare those sequences with the ones showing the dogs turning, first across a 90° turn and then across the 180°. The first thing to note is the take off spots, both dogs have almost halved the distances that they leave the ground before the jump. When did they make that decision? How much time does each dog need to effect the changes that you see?
Next, compare the position of each dog’s body when taking off for a turn. Look at the weight and center of gravity. For each, when readying for a turn, he brings his rear or his powerhouse underneath him. The horse people call this collection; in most dogs, it’s a far more extreme action than that, as these dogs demonstrate.
Now, look at the shape of the jump. The straight line is flat and extended; the turns are markedly different, with both dogs taking off closer to the jump and landing closer to the jump, making the jump shape far more of an arc. In the case of the 90° turn, if either of these dogs took off expecting to go in a straight line they’d land past the next jump. Again, think of the time frame involved. When does your dog need to know that he’s going in a straight line? Because the next point to consider is: if these dogs took off expecting to turn, how much time would they waste on that straight line?
Next look at the landing positions for the two types of turns – each is different. The 90° turn needs these dogs to land and immediately take off for the next jump; the 180° turn needs them to land turning and ready for a stride into the next jump. In each case, the dogs land looking at the next jump. When you watch dogs working, that’s often the key to their understanding of their handler’s communication efforts. If they’re looking at the next jump, its safe to say that they know where they’re going next.
Whatever the size of dog that you handle, ever dog needs timely information. Watch how long it takes for a walking dog to collect into a sit; think how much more that same dog has to do to turn over a jump. Look at both Soda and Finn in action; see the differences in takeoff position and execution. Turning at speed requires fine judgment, concentration and the knowledge of exactly where you’re going next, not to mention a huge amount of physical capability and understanding of the job requirements. very few handlers appreciate just how much work their dogs are doing, or appreciate the complexity of the task before their dogs. Dog are asked to jump around their handlers, given sight of the bar at the last moment, yelled at and shouted at, and last, but by no means least, told off for knocking bars down.
Do you give your dog adequate notice of when a turn is coming? With a small dog, it is true that as their stride is shorter, you have far longer to “recover” the situation if the information isn’t provided, but it has a disastrous effect on the dog. When a dog is guessing and he gets that guess wrong, what happens to his confidence levels? What happens to his trust in his partner? Some dogs will keep driving anyway; most will slow down, enabling them to deal with even the latest of calls. No dog likes to get it wrong; many have been taught not to care, but no dog likes it. Even if a dog’s handler simply slumps when he goes off-course and there is no marching off to be put in a crate, or long diatribes about how he was not listening, the dog soon learns that it is best to work slowly and jump each jump prepared for a turn.
Many dogs are faster when you put targets out for them; they’re faster because the targets give them the information that they’re not getting for their handlers. They know where they are going next and they also know they’re going to get it right. take away their targets and they return to guesswork and plodding. As a handler, your aim should be to give your dog as much information as possible. A fast agility dog, in the main, is a confident dog. A confident dog can rely on his partner to give him the information that he needs to complete the job at hand.
This article was originally printed in Clan run magazine in September 2007. Many thanks to Monica Percival and her team for their editing and artistic skills